Most of us view shade in the garden as a condition that can’t be cured and must be endured. It’s part of life. Eventually, with determination, trial and error—and a little help from our friends—we discover the joys of shade gardening and the delights of shade-loving plants.
But in focusing too closely on the horticultural possibilities, I believe we miss the broader point that shade and its counterpoint, light, are major visual elements in the garden. They are as useful and dynamic as form, shape and scale—all of which are familiar parts of the design lexicon.
It’s helpful to think of the garden landscape as a painting and to contemplate its chiaroscuro—chiaro meaning “clear” or “bright” and oscuro meaning “dark”. The idea of chiaroscuro goes back to Renaissance Italy; it suggests the treatment or disposition of light and shade to create effects of relief, depth, volume, perspective and balance. Since Leonardo da Vinci, artists have debated the value of chiaroscuro as a visual device and an organizing principle.
Both are relevant in the garden. By manipulating light and shade we can place them in a mutually flattering contrast that intensifies our experiences of both. In practical terms this means creating shade where there was none and vice versa. In a sunny garden, how tranquil and inviting is a vine-
covered arbour, how scintillating the light from the vantage point of shade?
Imagine the excitement of walking down a path with alternating patches of intense light and cooling shade from overhanging trees or arches—or of viewing, and emerging into, sunshine at the end of a planted tunnel. Conversely, in a wooded garden the judicious removal of shade provides magical shafts of light. Here, being brave enough to edit really pays off.